This is The Book that has inspired the Greatest Number of Legendary Illustrations
Botticelli, Blake, Doré are just a few of the artists who have tied their name to the history of the “Commedia”.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante states that in the most impious moments, when man sees naught but fog, he does not cease to imagine things: the mind rises and withdraws within itself until it begins to rain in the fantasy. Imagination, hence, is a place where it rains. When we read his epic poem we tend to think, as Borges rightly asserted, that Dante imagined the other world exactly as he presents it.
Proof of the intensity of his text, almost immediately after its publication (c. 1304-1321), The Divine Comedy began to intrigue and inspire the best artists in the world. One of them was Sandro Botticelli and another Jacopo Torni; both magnificent painters who served as the book’s first illustrators. Botticelli’s finest illustrations came from the “Inferno”, the most popular of the three books for similar reasons to those of Milton’s Paradise Lost: Hell is much more attractive than Heaven. In both poems, the Avernus is described in the most seductive and powerful visual terms. To such an extent that one might think imagination is directly linked to Satan and his eerie gardens.
Since then, The Divine Comedy continued resonating in artists, an echo that would embrace, for instance, the poet, visionary and engraver William Blake. In his visualization of the work, Blake impresses the archetypal vigor that characterizes his biblical illustrations, and his characters irradiate the intensity that is conjured in Alighieri’s narrative as few have done throughout history.
Of 19th century artists we cannot forget The Gates of Hell by Rodin, which are almost 7 meters tall, and contain 180 figures —among which stands The Thinker, originally called The Poet, perhaps in honor of Dante himself.
But so many artists have tried to illustrate the Commedia that it is hard to gather them in an article of this breadth; we could say, however, that none of them left such an indelible print on the collective imagination as French painter Gustave Doré. His drawings, just as those by Blake, are the most exquisite invitation to Dante’s Inferno, but also to his first sphere of Paradiso, where Dante and Beatrice stare at an enormous rose from whose petals unfolds the circling flight of angels that carry the nectar of divine love. Each one of his illustrations is in itself an epic poem, hard to erase from our vigil and from the places that lie beyond it.
In the 20th century, Salvador Dali was commissioned to illustrate a new translation of The Divine Comedy. At first sight his works seem conventional (coming from him, of course), but we should recall that Dali became a Christian in the 1940s, and many of his works since then are full of complex, esoteric, religious and mathematical references.
In the Commedia, the reader sees before himself, in great detail, every spectacle that may await him after death, which vibrates in the clarity of the verses. Dante makes our imagination a place where it rains–– where his descriptions of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso occur exactly so.
No masterpiece has ever painted as many magnificent works with its words, and no masterpiece has ever woven as many realms of darkness with such superhuman light as The Divine Comedy. “The Commedia is a book everyone ought to read”, Borges said. “Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest book literature can give us; it is to submit to a strange asceticism. Why should we deny ourselves the joy of reading the Commedia?”
In his journey through the poem, each reader paints his own paintings, surely attracted to one scene more than to another. What painting would you create if you were to illustrate the Commedia? Would it be Inferno, Purgatorio or Paradiso? Why should we deprive ourselves from the happiness of reading this story and illustrating it in the fantasy? (Because imagination is a place where it rains).
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